Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Looking back on Fakarava

So this is the city - a haircut, wifi that (almost) works, fruit smoothies, French pastries, water and electricity on the pontoon,  and people like us here too.  We are awash with stimuli and good company.  Papeete is not a big place, but it's so much bigger than anywhere we've been since Panama city.

The photos I promised in the previous post are below. Sadly, I discover, we have no photos of Liza, but Martha, from Silver Fern, says she will email something to me in the fullness of time.

The south Fakarava pass is superlative for snorkelers and divers

The snorkelers - Marce and co

A perfect day for snorkelling past the old village of Tetamanu

The water is so clear, the coral endless (photos by Silver Fern)

Alex took this photo and the one below from above the water in the dinghy anchorage

Inside the church at Tetamanu (south Fakarava), built 1873

Beach barbecue at south Fakarava

Yet another beach barbecue made by Silver Fern in south-east Fakarava (Hirifa Point)

Lisa's beach bar at Hirifa Pt

The anchorage in behind Hirifa Pt

Enki on approach to Tahiti (below), with Moorea on the horizon (above)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Pearl country


We've left behind the Paumotu girls with the pearl earrings.

You'd see them in Rotoava, kicking along the road in groups of two or three. One might be carrying a baby. They'd usually be laughing. They'd be wearing shorts and a top, some kind of easy footwear or bare feet, and in their earlobes, lustrous pearl studs. Green or grey, purple or black. Tahitian pearls (or black pearls as they're sometimes called) come in lots of colours. All the girls wore them, just as they all wore their long thick hair twisted into a heavy knot at the back of the neck. Very often they'd have stuck a fresh flower behind the ear, just like the postcards, and yet nothing about them looked contrived.

In my super fine hair, a flower behind the ear doesn't stand a chance, but they could keep a whole flower arrangement in place on their heads. For special occasions, they did - they'd have their hair brushed out, a crown of fresh flowers on top, and around their person, more pearls. Short strands of perfect small pearls for young girls, long strands of outrageously large pearls for the mamas. One of the ladies in the craft tent at Heiva had made up for sale necklaces of tiny bright-orange shells interspersed with black pearls. So Tuamotus.

You get to thinking differently about pearls after you've been floating about in the Fakarava lagoon for a bit, keeping a lookout for the pearl farm buoys and talking to women who know their product. "You don't pay less than 5000 francs for a good pearl," Liza tells us one evening. "Anything less than that is a rubbish pearl." We've met Liza on our first day anchored at the south-eastern tip of Fakarava, and she's reeled us in. We offer no resistance. She's an ample-bosomed, gregarious woman with a throaty laugh, a bon vivant of sorts with keen sense of hospitality and commerce. For a couple of evenings,we sit around the table in her open-sided beach hut with other cruisers, and she feeds us poisson cru, seared tuna, grilled fish (mahi mahi, grouper), chips, rice and big bottles of Hinano beer. We can hardly move afterwards.

After the plates are cleared (a baby pig rustling around under the table nibbling toes was hinting at others waiting for their fair share of the evening's fare), Liza comes out of the kitchen. She's in hostess mode, wearing a loose silky off-the-shoulder above-the-knee dress, her grey-streaked hair down and a dried flower crown completing the outfit. In her ears, the same pearls I noticed earlier in the day when she'd hooked a small bunch of green coconuts down from a very tall palm behind the house, and with a machete, sharpened for the morning's copra work, cut them open for us to drink from. She works hard, does Liza.

She lights up one of Alex's cigarettes and talks. This is why she cooks for us, so she can talk. This could be a lonely spot. Nothing in the way Liza speaks suggests that she is lonely. She has her man Jean (a Morgan Freeman lookalike who spent 17 years in the French Foreign Legion), and further along the beach, a couple of his sisters and their families. She grew up on Toau, a very much smaller and less accessible atoll north of Fakarava and she loves to tell stories about those simpler times. But the only visible light looking out from their house behind the beach bar is a navigational beacon. It's probably near the south pass, which is littered with reefs. The village to the north is 55 km away by boat. When she needs to go shopping, they take their boat up the same channel we came down. It's not always smooth water in the lagoon. Far from it. We foreigners, we transients, are her entertainment, we are the reason she pushed Jean to help her build a restaurant on the beach a couple of years ago. "He could live here alone," she says, "but I like people."

What she has to say about pearls is probably common enough knowledge, but a lot of cruisers passing through the Tuamotus arrive hoping to pick up cheap black pearls. They've heard stories from those who've come through before them. Handfuls of pearls for only XXXXX. And it's true, there are cheap pearls to be bought. But the people in the Tuamotus aren't naive. They're not selling you anything they can't sell somewhere else for a better price. If you've been sold cheap pearls, it's because that's all they've got left to sell you. The pretty ones have already been sent to Tahiti.

The price of black pearls has fallen. That's because too many are being produced too quickly, according to Liza. It used to take two years to grow a pearl, and now it's more like one year before the pearls are brought to market. More pearls, cheaper pearls...and less durable pearls. A pearl which has been left for two years inside the mother-of-pearl shell in the water, growing its beautiful lustre, lasts a lot longer than one left for half that time. "I've had these for 10 years," she says, fingering her own pearls, "and they haven't changed colour."

But we all have a budget, don't we? So we cruisers sail away from the Tuamotus with our 1000 FPF pearls, and likely feel happy with what we've bought. Probably the colour and the lustre of our cheap pearls will fade, but what we're really after is memories, isn't it? Tokens of our passing by there. Everything fades.

In southeast Fakarava, we met a French couple who have one of the most famous names in sailing - Taberlay. Marie was wearing an interesting arrangement of pearls around her neck, which I admired in the dark as we sat around a fire built by the redoubtable beach barbecue team on Silver Fern. In daylight she showed me how her necklace was put together - three pearls, two at the neck and one at the back, serving as a clasp, cleverly held by and strung on very fine Spectra (a synthetic rope stronger than steel). The pearls were originally a gift from a friend, and strung on a natural fibre which had rotted. Marie's husband Patrick, who is a true man of the sea, had re-constructed her necklace using a fibre he had on the boat. It will never rot, and Marie can wear them everyday, just like the girls of Paumotu.

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Friday, 17 July 2015

Too much paradise?

The foreshore of Rotoava, the village on Fakarava

The free wifi spot on Fakarava is on the front porch of a modest bungalow set back from the main road, about 2 km walk along the foreshore. The house belongs to young French couple,  Stephanie and Adric, who run their small business Fakarava Yacht Services, from home. Stephanie will do your laundry and sell you a tray of eggs. They will rent you bicycles. Adric will try to fix your boat problems, within reason. They provide free wifi for the price of a coffee or a juice and seem not to mind how long you stay.

The porch, Fakarava Yacht Services

The church (and below)

You share the porch with their kids and friends.

We're sitting here, we cruisers, buying books on Amazon, checking email, doing banking and picking the brains of Sabine and Gary, the dive centre operators from Kauehi who came in yesterday to support the home team in the Fakarava dance competition.

The Kauehi dancers

Fakarava dancers (and below)

There has been rather a strong emphasis on retail since we've come into Fakarava, at least compared to the past few months. The mamas here are selling their shell and pearl work in a tent set back from the gymnasium where the dancing and singing takes place in the evening. Their work is superb, and for me and my wastrel companion Marce, irresistible. "Are you sisters?" one of the mamans asked us. We looked at each other. Same fine hair, same pinheads. We laughed. We could be.


We bought earrings from her, and from her sister, and from their sister-in-law. You have to spread your favours.

Marce and Diana help out the local economy

The dancing continues tonight. We are spellbound, torn between staying for more of the spectacle and moving south towards the famed snorkelling of Fakarava's south pass. Tomorrow, we say, after the pirogue racing...

Anchorage off Rotoava village

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

First pass

On a map, the distances look so small. Marquesas to Tuamotus.  Just a small hop. It took us four nights.

Four beautiful nights though.  It’s not often you’ll get me enthusing about night sailing. I miss my sleep too much. But there was something so smooth, so soft and pacific about the ocean, something that said, ‘you will never again be at sea on a night quite this perfect’.

The gentle night en route to the Tuamotus

We left the Marquesas from Ua Pou which remains for us an unknown island. The first time we couldn’t get the anchor to set; this time we couldn’t get ashore.  Perhaps we could have tried harder, but cruising is meant to be fun.  Bringing the dinghy into the village of Hakatehau looked as though it might involve crushed limbs and/or shoulders torn out of armpits.  It was enough to watch the clouds tangle with Ua Pou’s monumental rock obelisks from the anchorage, and then watch the sun set.

Hakatehau bay on the northwest corner of Ua Pou

 After 24 hours, we told ourselves that it couldn’t be rollier at sea. We might as well get going towards the Tuamotus. The east wind was fresh. The sea outside the anchorage looked flat. In fact, it was.

From the Marquesas to the Tuamotus

Good bye Ua Pou - and the Marquesas

The moon rose late, so for many black hours the stars  were…well, stars. No haze, no cloud.  Just great handfuls of cosmic brilliance flung across the vastness.

The clouds caught up with us, of course. They always do.  The weather is the weather.  Restless.

By the time we were approaching our first-ever coral reef pass, we were dodging rain squalls. Plus the sun was just rising which isn’t such a smart time to come through a pass, but it was a trade off between visibility and state of the tide. We entered Kauehi atoll, where the current runs very strongly out of the lagoon, at low water slack. It was ok for a first pass.  Nothing to bump into if you kept to your course.  No trauma, in other words – this is important, I think, when you have half an ocean of coral atolls still in front of you.

A lagoon is a wondrous thing. It blocks the ocean swell. When we dropped anchor off the village, increasing the crowd of yachts from three to four, the boat was finally still, for the first time since we left Panama. The day the motion stopped I could feel tension escaping out of my body.  I hadn’t known it was there. We slept so well that first night in the lagoon inside Kauehi atoll.

Our dinghy and the anchorage of the village on Kauehi

The church is made from coral, and coral limestone

The exodus to Fakarava - in relays
Kauehi is a very quiet place all round, and even quieter this week because last Sunday a  50-strong contingent of dancers and singers, footballers, paddlers and bowlers, left for Fakarava to compete and perform in July festivities.  We saw them board the ferry, one-third of the island’s population. That same day the supply ship Mareva-nui called in, as it does once a fortnight. The rest of the population came down to the wharf to snap up carton-loads of food – nearly 100% junk , as far as I could tell. The ship took away sacks of their copra. The movement of their other crop, black pearls, is not so easy to track.

The copra shed at the dock

Waiting for supplies

Pissing on junk

The people swarm the landed supplies on the dock (and below)

Martha (right) from Silver Fern compares product notes

A barge transports goods between ship and shore
We’ve come to Fakarava for the festivities too.  It’s just five hours sail to the west of Kauehi, and who can resist consecutive evenings of traditional dance and singing,  competitive coconut  spearing and fruit throwing,  another Miss/Mister/Mama island contest, not to mention takeaway mahimahi frites?

La fete de Heiva - July festivities (and below)

Fakarava is the second largest atoll in the Tuamotus. It has an airport. Its village, called Rotorava, has a post office, and several shops. You can get internet here. There’s no internet service on Kauehi.

Kauehi pearl fishers live on the lagoon (and below)

If we’d just wanted to stay still, snorkel/dive in  stunningly clear water, watch the palms wave in the breeze, and a very small world go by slowly, there would have been no reason at all to leave Kauehi.  For a first South Seas atoll, the one which will be most strongly imprinted on our memories, we couldn’t have chosen better.

This is how you grow a Tahitian pearl

Silver Fern's water crew - Bryce and Martha, Alisdair and Vivienne (and Diana)

New Zealand-flagged yacht Silver Fern

Dive (and snorkelling trip) with Kauehi divers Gary and Sabine

Not that we chose exactly, but that’s another story. Something about the wind shifting further and further into the south, and the currents bending up, and the time of the tides. But you don’t need to know all that.  Just that Kauehi is there, and unless the oceans rise, probably won’t change much if you don’t get there for another decade or several.